The Daily Telegraph
Biden’s election will show that the Western alliance is no more
We will soon see that the Europeans prefer to cosy up to their enemies than ally with America
With an eye-roll here, and a put-down there, it has long been sport for the world to watch Angela Merkel’s response to anything Donald Trump says. As amusing for many as this may be, the game makes light of the grave predicament facing the West. Just as Europe and America face relative economic decline and growing insecurity, not to mention domestic instability, the Western Alliance is no more. The global institutions built by liberal democracies are decaying, our commitment to collective security is in doubt, and our response to increasingly assertive hostile foreign states is fragmented and ineffective.
Optimistic liberals might suppose that the election of Joe Biden as president of the United States will help the West to set a new course. The polls suggest Biden is likely to win big, and his politics are reassuringly familiar. Europeans can tell themselves that, as a Democrat, Biden will make a renewed commitment to multilateralism. After the Trump years, he might see that the best way of making America great again is by making America respectable again.
But taking such a view would be a grave error. Of course, Biden is unlikely to dismiss foreign lands as “s---hole countries”. And, while his memory seems to fail him on occasion, he is more likely to pronounce foreign leaders’ and landmarks’ names correctly than the man who called one of America’s favourite national parks “Yo, Semite.” But the gulf between Europe and the US is not simply down to the personality of the incumbent president. Its cause can be explained by sharp differences in values and interests, and a failure of leadership, in Europe as much as America.
Take China. The clash between Washington and Beijing is not intensifying simply because President Trump believes the tension suits him. Scepticism towards China is now a bipartisan attitude in America. No US president could sit and watch as China dominates first the South China Sea, and then the Pacific Ocean. Nor could they remain passive as China threatens American allies, sets debt traps to control other countries, and spies on Western companies and military and security agencies.
Biden will probably adjust America’s China policy, his rhetoric will be less wild, and he will be more willing to work with allies and through international institutions. But his objectives will match Trump’s. He will aim to limit Beijing’s geopolitical reach, stop China gaining a military and security advantage over the US, and seek continued American leadership in key technologies such as telecommunications and artificial intelligence. And as he does so, he will seek the support of America’s allies.
But where does Europe stand on these questions? In Britain, the Government is slowly correcting the horrors of the Cameron/osborne “golden era” of relations with China. The Prime Minister stood up to Beijing over its treatment of Hong Kong, changed policy on Huawei’s role within our 5G networks, and seems increasingly sceptical about Chinese investment in our critical infrastructure.
On the Continent, however, important questions remain unanswered. Emmanuel Macron is hawkish, calling Beijing’s policy “hegemonic”, and declaring Chinese investment in European infrastructure “not compatible with our interests”.
But Germany has been slow to respond to China’s destruction of civil rights in Hong Kong and its treatment of the Uighur Muslims. It pushes the EU to seek trade and investment agreements with China, even as Beijing tears up international treaties, threatens its neighbours, and manipulates international institutions such as the WHO. Like a man determined to prove his own blindness, Peter Altmaier, Germany’s minister for the economy and Merkel’s most trusted lieutenant, insists, “I still believe that change can be achieved through trade.”
The bizarre presidency of Donald Trump has allowed Europe, and Germany in particular, to hide its hypocrisies, inadequacies and indecision behind a veil of selfsatisfied moral superiority. But if Biden is elected this November, that veil will be torn away, and not only when it comes to China.
Questions linger about Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin and Russia. But with Europe reliant on Russia for 40 per cent of its gas, and plans to increase supply further with a new pipeline, it is Europe, and Germany in particular, that refuses to stand up to Russian aggression. A Biden presidency can toughen America’s Russia policy, but it would require enormous naivety to believe Europe will change its approach.
Partly because of his alleged connections to Russia, Trump’s election prompted anxious concern about the future of Nato and the commitment, from America in particular, to the principle of collective security. Would Washington really risk war if Russia entered Estonia, for example? We cannot answer that question, and fortunately it remains hypothetical, but we do know that it is Europe – far more than the US – that has persistently undermined Nato.
The EU seeks its own military alliance, for example, with structures rivalling Nato. Its governments underfund their already limited capabilities. Even now, as Greece and Turkey – two Nato countries – stumble closer to conflict, Europe remains passive. Again, German economic interests explain why: Berlin’s diplomats dialled down the EU’S response to Turkish aggression. But Biden, apparently the president with whom Europe thinks it can do business, is promising to make President Erdogan “pay a price” for his actions.
There are, then, two ways in which a Biden presidency will remove the Europeans’ veil of smug superiority. First, he will follow some Trump-era objectives, because that is what American interests demand, thus showing that Trump was no extremist on China. And second, where he does change approach, he will expose European indifference to the Western Alliance as driven, not by distaste for Trump’s policies, but by Europe’s own cynicism, short-termism and willingness to freeload off US military budgets.
In both respects, Biden’s election will reveal Europe’s dirty secret. It was never Donald Trump who stopped the Europeans being their better selves, taking responsibility for the security of their own citizens, and protecting long-term Western interests. It was always Europe itself.